What I’ve Been Reading — August 2006

Books Bought:
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #20 – McSweeney’s Press
A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle
Waiting for the End of the World – Madison Smartt Bell
Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez
Peace Like a River – Leif Enger

Books Read:
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #20 – McSweeney’s Press

In constructing this column nearly a year and a half ago, I first came out with the intention of reading an hour a night, every night. My goal was to start reading again. After all, I was passionate about books, I wanted to be a writer, and I enjoyed purchasing anything with the written word in it. But I was reading a book every month and a half – a horrible pace for someone that purchased four or five books at a time.

So I took a cue from Nick Hornby and started tracking the books I’d bought. And the books I’d read. And I made a little monthly routine out of it. I’ve read more than I ever have, and I really enjoy it – there’s millions of little created worlds out there, and I’m dabbling my in toes in several more than I ever would have had time for before.

Still, sometimes I find that I need to slow things down. After reading four or five books a month, it becomes necessary to pick one book and settle down – to nestle in and enjoy every painstakingly created word. This month, taking another cue from a Nick Hornby “Stuff I’ve Read” column, I finally did it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rest of the books that went through my life this month. I’ve always looked at Roddy Doyle’s novels with an admiring eye, and this month I finally bought A Star Called Henry at The Book Shop. I’ve heard nothing but good about it, and it looks fascinating.

I also received my first McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern — #20, an issue featuring a full color work of art on every fourth page. The short stories are wonderful, and many of them stood out – however, I’ll have to talk about them later. I only read them because I finished my “one book” on the 27th, and needed something to read in the meantime.

And that’s all I’ll say about that.

I find great pleasure in discovering John Steinbeck five years after going to college. I read Of Mice and Men while high school, and breezed through The Pearl in college, but never gave him a second thought until reading East of Eden last year.

I was hooked.

Instead of doing the compulsive book-reader thing and devouring every Steinbeck book at once, I’ve decided to stretch them out. Steinbeck’s not writing anymore books, and I’d hate to not have one to look forward to, even if it’s a shorter novella or play.

With that in mind, I felt it was time to dive into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Grapes of Wrath – and experience the horrible, yet satisfyingly moralistic life of the Joad family.

Think about it: what happens when you lose everything? When your livelihood dries up and your home is taken away. When you’re forced onto the road after selling nearly everything. What happens when you drive off in search of a better place and it is not the Babylon you’d dreamed of but a living hell?

To many of us, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras are historic concepts, no longer conceivable in today’s world, destined to live in the past and remembered only by those who lived through it. However, nearly 70 years after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath continues to outline the life and death struggle to survive without food, money, or prospect.

The Joads are a typical Dust Bowl group: a farm family whose land dried up, cashed out, and was taken away. They’re forced to begin a journey to California, admittedly with the greatest of intentions. Jobs are rumored to be plentiful, and even the eldest members are excited to bask in endless fields of grapes and peaches. With very little money and an unreliable truck, the family heads west on Route 66 in search of their new life.

What they find is anything but plentiful. An entire population of displaced farm families – “Okies,” as they were slanderously called – had arrived in California to find very few jobs. Because of this, wages were lowered, child labor was encouraged, and even those who had constant work were hard pressed to keep their family fed. Children starved, men and women collapsed, exhausted, and what little belongings that still existed were moved weekly, sometimes daily.

Steinbeck constructs an unassuming, yet vicious landscape throughout the book. The imagery is stark. Hope is fleeting as the Joad family slowly makes their way down Route 66. They felt the cold calculation of the banks that took away their home. Then, they experienced the restless journey toward something they couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually, they discovered that they could be powerful – if they organized, they could beat this rap. If a man’s children are crying for food, starving and dying, you’d be surprised the amount of fight it can bring up.

The Grapes of Wrath
isn’t a dusty, boring tome. It’s not a chore. It’s amazingly gripping and startlingly vivid. At times it’s hopeful. Other times, terrifyingly melancholy. If you see a little of yourself in the Joad family, you’re liable to understand their plight, to feel their pain – to quietly champion their cause until, by the end, you’re fighting for a rally and hoping things turn out.

Steinbeck champions the “down on luck” traveler better than anyone. Even those who continued the tradition – Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen – borrow heavily from Steinbeck’s novels, most specifically this one. He brings the fight not just to the family, but also to everyone around them. Brief chapter-long interludes paint a frame around the Joad family’s odyssey, bringing perspective to their suffering. Steinbeck argues that bad luck shouldn’t cause an entire region to end up poor, homeless, and without prospect. And it shouldn’t cause hardship for the small farmers who have to try to survive in a world of declining costs and dwindling returns.

There are stark parallels between the westward migration of the Midwest during the Depression and a more recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Look at what happened last summer – at the destruction that Mother Nature brought down upon the people of New Orleans – and consider what happened to residents who were too poor to pick themselves back up. Think about the people who were forced to move on from their homes in order to fight for the same job as their displaced neighbors.

Ultimately, we can all learn a lot from Steinbeck’s prose. In The Grapes of Wrath, we learn not to take anything for granted. We learn that beauty can be found in the simple – in a loaf of bread, or in a porcelain bathtub.

Most of all, we learn that many times it’s the people with nothing who are willing to give the most. We learn that everyone is a member of the same human race – that everyone has a hand in everyone else’s life – and that if you can’t help a fellow destitute, than what good are you to yourself?

“The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I’m frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing, It is completely out of hand ; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy.”
– John Steinbeck, on public opinion for The Grapes of Wrath.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 2nd, 2006